Author Thomas Steinbeck visits Laguna Blanca

December 19, 2012

An Interview with English Instructor Ashley Tidey

LB: How did we get Thomas Steinbeck to come to Laguna Blanca?
Clara Svedlund, the science teacher at the Lower School, knows the Steinbecks and also knows that we read Of Mice and Men in ninth grade, so she suggested last year that we might be interested in having him come talk to the students about his writing and about his father’s work—his characters, his writing style, etc. Steinbeck visited the Upper School Assembly and, although I had wanted the seventh graders (who had just read The Pearl) to sit in on the assembly, I realized that that would ruin the ending of the book for them. So, amazingly enough, he agreed to stay after the assembly so that the seventh graders could come over and meet him. That was incredibly special— a bunch of seventh graders sitting there with the son of one of the most famous American writers of the twentieth century! I still can’t believe that any of this actually happened.

LB: How did the students respond to his talk?
The high school and the seventh grade were incredible. A lot of students and faculty came up to me afterward and said that they felt it was one of the best assemblies that we’ve had at Laguna. I think that there was a sense that this was a one-shot deal. I began the assembly by saying that it’s not every day that the son of one of the greatest authors of the twentieth centuries walks through the doors of Spaulding. I was so proud of the respect and enthusiasm and energy in that room; it felt like a college lecture hall. Kids from all grade levels asked great questions. There was an especially sweet atmosphere when it was just Mr. Steinbeck and 29 seventh graders. Later, when I asked the seventh graders to come up with adjectives to describe Steinbeck (we were studying adjectives that day), they exploded with words: smart, creative, loving, different, sincere, passionate, honest, humble, and comfortable with kids. I love that last one. He doesn’t actually have kids. But it feels like he does because he is so incredibly relaxed with them. Basically, the kids got to hear and see a real author talk in very real ways about writing and about his iconic father.

LB: Are your classes reading more Steinbeck this year?
A lot of the seventh graders want to read more Steinbeck for extra credit over winter break. Steinbeck suggested short stories that I haven’t put my hands on yet (“In the Long Valley” and “Pastures of Heaven” and “Flight”), so I’ve suggested Travels with Charley or Cannery Row until we track down the short stories.

LB: What did Steinbeck talk about?
He talked a lot about Lennie in Of Mice and Men, a book which almost every student in that room had read. He talked about sad endings because almost every book his dad wrote had a sad ending. He explained that he (Mr. Steinbeck Junior) thinks that sad endings are OK if a character achieves “enlightenment”-- moment of insight or realization or when you see the “big picture.” He talked about his Dad’s love for books; he had so many books that there was no place to put pictures on the walls and he had lamps on piles of books around the house. Steinbeck gave us little verbal snapshot pictures of his Dad, capturing for us funny little details about him that we never would have read on a book jacket or in a book introduction. So, his Dad, it turns out, loved a good sharpened pencil! Apparently, he began the day by sharpening pencils and then putting them in a basket. He used one pencil for every three sentences he wrote! He also liked to talk to things: to his suits, to parking meters, the couch, his pencils of course, his cane, and his dogs. He talked about how, once his Dad wrote a book, he never wanted to read it again. He talked about how his dad was not loved by the folks of Monterey County. Some of John Steinbeck’s books offer a pretty strong social critique of the conditions of working people, which was not always appreciated by the residents of the area! And—every English teacher’s dream—he talked about what he believes are the best steps to take to become a good writer: “If you want to become a great writer, become a great reader.” Steinbeck tries to read two to three books a week. He talked about the importance of reading books carefully to become a good writer—and getting a FEELING for an author’s style.

LB: When did you read Steinbeck for the first time?
I fell in love with John Steinbeck’s work when I was in ninth grade in 1979 (!) and the whole high school (in Sacramento) was asked to read The Grapes of Wrath over the summer, in anticipation of a whole-high-school trip (we had only 75 kids) to Monterey County. We stayed in condominiums at Pajaro Dunes, and basically had a whole “Steinbeck-immersion” experience, visiting Cannery Row and getting a feel for this area that the younger and older Steinbecks love so much. It was a VERY 70’s thing to do—throw kids in a bunch of vans and head out . . . I wish I could do the same someday.